Vesture: the House of Bishops Consultation

“…the truth is this: the canon is already very, very permissive. So when you are amending it from mandatory to occasional, look carefully at what it is you are amending”

… so said the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, when the Revd Christopher Hobbs’ Private Members Motion was raised at General Synod in July 2014. However, Mr Hobbs’ proposal was first put down for signature in November 2012 and, although scheduled for consideration in February 2014, was only discussed by Synod in the following June. Whilst the media were quick to repeat misguided perceptions of “dress-down Sundays” and “defrocking priests” associated with the proposal, here, here, and elsewhere, important corollaries relating to aspects of safeguarding and those purporting to be priests have tended to be adumbrated. We summarized these issues in our February 2015 post Clerical attire, officiants and safeguarding.

The Church of England is at present considering two aspects of vesture from different points of view:

  • Amending Canon No. 34, which is to be promulged at February’s General Synod; and
  • the House of Bishops Consultation on Vesture, resulting from Christopher Hobbs’ Private Member’s Motion, which closes for comment in April.

Neither is trivial: the Amending Canon implements the recommendations following the Archbishop’s Chichester Visitation and addresses a number of issues relating to safeguarding; the Consultation concerns a proposal for the relaxation of the provisions on vesture, and will require a two-thirds majority in each House of Synod for Final Approval because it constitutes a provision “touching … the services or ceremonies of the Church of England or the administration of the Sacraments or sacred rites thereof”. Individually the proposals are attempting to address a specific issues associated with the vesture of priests, but taken together they appear to be sending out mixed messages to the average person in the pew .

Canons associated with vesture

The current version of Canon B 8 Of the vesture of ordained and authorized ministers during the time of divine service, using a mix of mandatory and permissive language, prescribes what is to be worn, by whom, and for which specific offices:

“3. At the Holy Communion the presiding minister shall wear either a surplice or alb with scarf or stole. When a stole is worn other customary vestments may be added. The epistoler and gospeller (if any) may wear a surplice or alb to which other customary vestments may be added.

4. At Morning and Evening Prayer on Sundays the minister shall normally wear a surplice or alb with scarf or stole.

5. At the Occasional Offices the minister shall wear a surplice or alb with scarf or stole.”

The flexibility and application of Canon B 8 is addressed in detail in Gavin Foster’s LLM Dissertation “Clerical Disobedience of Canon Law in the Church of England”, Cardiff University, 2012.

Canon C 8 Of ministers exercising their ministry does not currently address vesting, and likewise Canon E 6 Of the licensing of readers and Canon E 8 Of the admission and licensing of lay workers. However, Canon C 27 Of the dress of ministers is a “catch-all” applicable to clergy dress as well as vesture, and requires that:

“The apparel of a bishop, priest, or deacon shall be suitable to his office; and, save for purposes of recreation and other justifiable reasons, shall be such as to be a sign and mark of his holy calling and ministry as well to others as to those committed to his spiritual charge.”

Amending Canon No. 34

Amending Canon 34 has its origins in recommendation 15 of the Proposals for legislative change in response to the report of the Archbishop’s Chichester Visitation, GS 1941, 13 January 2014. It was finally approved nem. con. in all three Houses (apart from one clergy abstention) at the July 2015 General Synod and, having been granted Royal Assent, returns to Synod on Monday 15 February “to be made, promulged and executed”. The Amending Canon addresses a number of issues relating to safeguarding including: relations with other Churches; ministers exercising their ministry; safeguarding; the licensing of readers; and the admission and licensing of lay workers.

New vesture-related provisions are introduced into Canon B 8, whereby a minister whose authority to officiate under that Canon is prohibited or suspended, may not vest in a church or a chapel for divine office. Equivalent prohibitions are introduced into Canons E 6 and E 8 in relation to the vesting of readers and lay workers; formerly both Canons were silent on the issue of vesting.

Furthermore, the amendment to Canon B 8 provides that “the minister having the cure of souls of a church or chapel or the sequestrator when the cure is vacant or the dean or provost and the canons residentiary of any cathedral or collegiate church, may not allow a minister to officiate or vest in the church or chapel if they know that the minister does not have authority to officiate, or is prohibited or suspended”. There is no equivalent amendment to Canons E 6 and E 8.

House of Bishops Consultation

At its meeting in December 2015, the House of Bishops agreed to consult members of General Synod and seek their views on whether the House should promote the introduction of draft legislation to amend Canon B 8 (‘Of the vesture of ordained and authorized ministers during the time of divine service’). The Bishops’ Consultation was issued on 2 January 2016 and Synod members have been asked to send their responses to the questions set out in the Conclusions to the Clerk to the Synod by 5pm on Friday 15 April. The House will consider the responses received at its meeting on 23 – 24 May and will decide then whether and, if so, when legislation on the subject should be introduced.

Paragraph 7 of the Consultation Paper suggests that General Synod’s resolution of July 2014 could be given effect by amending Canon B 8 so that:

  • In relation to the Holy Communion and Morning and Evening Prayer on Sundays, the minister would be able to depart on a general basis from the normal requirements as to vesture, provided that he or she had first ascertained, after consultation with the Parochial Church Council, that doing so would benefit the mission of the Church in the parish.
  • In relation to the Occasional Offices, the minister would be able to depart from the normal requirement as to vesture, provided that he or she had the agreement of the persons concerned to do so. It has been suggested that the requirement for the agreement of those concerned might extend to weddings and funerals but not baptisms on the grounds that the latter generally take place in a main Sunday service and should therefore be within the minister’s discretion. Since, however, the prescribed forms of vesture would remain the norm for all three occasional offices it would seem more straightforward if the rights of those concerned were the same in each case.
  • Where the minister departed from the normal requirements as to vesture, the dress adopted by the minister should be seemly and not such as to be indicative of any departure from the doctrine of the Church of England.

Synod members have been asked to indicate:

  • whether they support the introduction of legislation to amend Canon B 8; and
  • if so, whether they would favour the approach set out in paragraph 7 of the paper, [above] or a different approach.

Vesture and clerical dress

Whilst it is necessary to read the vesture-related canons in conjunction with Canon C 27 which is applicable to both vesture and clerical dress, as we have noted earlier, restrictions on the wearing of clerical dress are of limited applicability. As Justin Welby is reported as saying:

“Regrettably, although [the Church of England] can ban someone from ever officiating at worship and wearing robes for worship, or passing themselves off as a priest in good standing, we cannot prevent them from using the title ‘the reverend’ or even wearing a clerical collar … anyone is able to wear such dress, providing they do not do so for illegal purposes. It is not contravening any law unlike, say, dressing as a police officer.”

In addition to vesting for divine service, the Chichester Commissaries’ Reports  had recommended that clergy who are prohibited or suspended should not be permitted to wear any clerical dress on any occasion. However, in its considerations on Robing and Vesture, the follow-up document to the Commissaries’ Reports, GS 1896, indicated that this was not considered viable in view of impracticality in its application to CofE clergy and its overall ineffectiveness. Consequently, the scope of the Amending Canon is limited to vesting for divine service, although the extension to readers and lay workers is additional to the initial recommendations.


Whilst the new provisions on vesting within Amending Canon No. 34 is not incompatible per se with the proposal to introduce changes to Canon B 8, these appear to be sending out mixed messages. The Amending Canon is about to be incorporated into the law of the Church, and has been formulated through a long process of consideration and discussion. Underpinning the changes to Canons C 8, E 6 and E 8 is an assumption that along with the other provisions on safeguarding, it is not acceptable for clergy, readers or lay workers who do not have authority to officiate, or are prohibited or suspended from officiating, to vest in a church or a chapel for divine office.

The Bishops’ Consultation, on the other hand, has not yet received such detailed scrutiny; nevertheless, similar changes to Canon B 8 have been considered and rejected by General Synod: the helpful Background Note on the PMM GS 1944B states: “the canonical requirements have been debated by the General Synod on a number of occasions in recent years: in February 1988, in February 1993, and most recently in November 2002, when the General Synod debated, but failed to pass a motion … seeking an amendment to Canon B 8 so that ministers, with the agreement of their church councils, might ‘dispense with the provisions relating to the vesture of ordained and authorised ministers during the time of divine service’”. Significantly in 2002, whilst the laity was marginally in favour of the change (98 for; 92 against), they were rejected by the other Houses – Clergy (68 for, 118 against); Bishops (7 for, 24 against).

Most of the evidence in support of the change has been apocryphal and non-qualitative: an otherwise comprehensive paper in 2006 by the former Bishop of Gloucester, Michael Perham, stated “[t]his is an area where there is increasing departure from what the canons require”; the background paper from the Revd Christopher Hobbs, GS 1944A, said

“3. Some synod members may not be aware that there are Church of England churches where robes are not worn, or not worn frequently …

4. Why would some clergy not wear robes? Perhaps they are part of a Fresh Expression, meeting in a school, or around café style tables. Perhaps it is a Sunday night in the summer and it is just a few people, and the people are gathered in a circle, and robes are just too stifling. For some clergy it may be that they consider the awesomeness and splendour of God is most properly conveyed through spoken word; or that the clergy and the laity are together the people of God; or that in the New Testament we are all priests, some are elders, and apart from modesty no particular clothing is prescribed. Most commonly robes and vestments are dispensed with because they are seen in some contexts as a barrier in communicating the gospel.

5. Some churches haven’t worn robes frequently for years. You could say it is traditional not to wear them in those churches! I came to England more than thirty years ago, and in some of the churches I went to then, robes were not worn … “

Before committing to making changes to Canon B 8, it appears that the proposals would benefit from some sort of Regulatory Impact Assessment, as is the practice for secular statutory legislation. Synod needs to determine:

  • the quantitative basis for the changes;
  • the impact of the changes: would these merely regularize/legitimize existing practice, or would they lead to other changes/improvements?
  • whether the work involved in developing new legislation would yield added value and be a justifiable use of Synod and Church resources?

With regard to this last point, perhaps Synod might ponder on Archbishop Sentamu’s observation that the present canon is already very, very permissive, and ask what would be gained from its modification.

[Last updated: 7 November 2019]

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Vesture: the House of Bishops Consultation" in Law & Religion UK, 12 February 2016,

14 thoughts on “Vesture: the House of Bishops Consultation

  1. Pingback: Vesture: the House of Bishops Consultation – Law and Religion | Fulcrum Anglican

  2. Do I understand this correctly to mean that in your reading of Canon Law clergy who rarely if ever wear clerical robes when leading Sunday worship are within the law, as long as their PCC supports this?

  3. Whilst this would appear to be the intended position if the Consultation were to lead to changes to Canon B 8, this is not the situation at present. The Canon uses mandatory language in relation to the vesture of a minister/presiding minister at Holy Communion, Morning and Evening Prayer on Sundays, and at Occasional Offices. The background note by the Secretary General, GS 1944B (link in above text) is well worth reading since this gives the Church’s view of the meaning of the present canonical requirements, paragraphs 5 to 10.

    With regard to your comment, the notes states:

    “The legal effect of the word ‘normally’ in Canon B 8.4 is liable to some misunderstanding. What it allows is a degree of latitude so that the requirement for the minister to wear a surplice or alb with scarf or stole may be dispensed with on particular occasions where the circumstances justify. It does not mean that in certain churches it is lawful for the wearing of such vesture to be dispensed with routinely”.

    • Many thanks for the response. I was surprised at what I took to be your meaning but I now realise that my eyes jumped over a critical paragraph which would have prevented the misunderstanding. GS1944B is indeed very helpful.

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  7. My name is Miguel Uchoa a anglican bishop from Brazil
    I was following the General Synod last month but I couldn’t find the amendement to the canon 8B. It was approved that vestments became optional for the clergy in some occasions?

    • Thank you for your comment. There appears to have been some confusion in the media reports on Synod’s consideration of relaxation on Canon B 8 on vesture. Although the House of Bishops Consultation on Vestments, GS Misc 1133, was circulated to members of General Synod along with other items, it was not on the Agenda for discussions.
      Approval for changes to Canon B 8 by Synod is therefore still some way off: the closing date for responses to the questions in the Conclusions to the House of Bishops’ Consultation is 15 April 2016; following this the bishops will decide whether changes should be made, or not.

      • Thanks for the clarification.. here we are making amendments to our canons and this one of the subjects we are working on. I found the text of the HoB consultation and it was very helpful already.

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